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Males. Few females. Alaska.

`Men in Trees,' starring Anne Heche, puts a pleasing spin on a well-worn romantic comedy premise.

September 12, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Given that it's set in Alaska and built around a will-they-won't-they delayed romance between a high-strung city mouse and an earthy country mouse, it's hard not to think of "Northern Exposure" when watching ABC's new Anne Heche vehicle, "Men in Trees." Or, indeed, of a long string of motion pictures, going all the way back to "It Happened One Night," in which a rough-hewn man rubs up against a sophisticated woman. (And of course there is Tarzan, the original man in a tree.) It's the comedy of the raw and the cooked and the kissed, and it has been pleasingly prepared here.

Premiering tonight on ABC before taking up a regular Friday post, "Men in Trees" gives us Heche as Marin Frist, a successful relationship coach and self-help author who discovers en route to a speaking engagement in remote Elmo, Alaska, that her fiance is being unfaithful and decides (after a pilot's worth of trying to leave) to stay there. She wants to get her head together, as we used to say, and to actually learn something about men, in a place whose male-to-female ratio is something like 10 to 1. ("The odds are good," she is told, "but the goods are odd.")

It's a premise that seems more appropriate to a mid-'90s theatrical romantic comedy -- something with Sandra Bullock or Meg Ryan -- than to a TV series, and indeed, given how much transpires in the pilot, you could bang an extra hour of complications and resolutions onto the end and have a spiffy little chick flick. Written by creator Jenny Bicks (a "Sex and the City" vet), it's an almost textbook exercise in the form and comes replete with extended metaphors and neat ironies: Marin's self-help love spiel is couched in automotive metaphors, but she can't drive. A key scene between her and Jack (James Tupper), the fish-and-game biologist the show proposes as her probable mismatched mate, takes place in a truck he shows her how to shift for him (he has hurt his wrist), and at the end of the pilot, she buys a truck of her own and lurches down the street. There are also plenty of symbols helpfully supplied by the wild northwest setting -- wolves and thin ice and mountains and valleys and stars -- though director James Mangold integrates them subtly.

The eponymous men in the titular trees are lumberjacks, and they're OK -- but, like the Seven Brothers who sought Seven Brides, they are looking for love in a world where the opposite sex is in short supply. (No gay characters yet introduced.) They may learn from Marin as she learns from them. There is some talk about power relationships, but at the core of the show we have the old story of a small woman in need of help and a big capable man to help her, whom press materials actually describe as "strong and silent." It's either pre- or post-feminist, you can take your pick.

This will possibly ripen into something more complex as (if) the series goes on, but Heche makes Marin something more than a wounded bird. Heche is a funny proposition, strange but likable. She's had mixed luck in big-screen features but maintains the cachet of a movie star. And yet the bulk of her career has been spent on TV, often in vehicles whose scripts she has invariably outclassed but played with enough craft and art to make them seem better than they are. Even stuck in the wrong role, she's interesting to watch. Like Calista Flockhart, she combines an insubstantial, neurasthenic beauty with obvious intelligence, and her sex appeal is inextricable from the fact that she might be trouble. Guys do dig this. (And some girls too, obviously.)

Marin suits her well, and she's supported by a fine and mostly unfamiliar cast that includes Derek Richardson as innkeeper and radio host (he reminded me of Eb on "Green Acres"), Abraham Benrubi as a bartender who knows his wine but not his trendy big-city mixed drinks, Sarah Strange as his affectionate but estranged wife, Suleka Mathew as a prostitute perhaps ready to get out of the business, Emily Bergl as Marin's harmless stalker, Seana Kofoed as her editor and John Amos (of "Good Times" and much before and since) as a pilot. All make immediate good impressions. They tell you a lot about who they are with a minimum of moves. If, as in most "quirky town" shows, they display a surprisingly philosophical bent, they are not awash in the pop cultural and high-art references that defined "Northern Exposure." "Men in Trees" is a fantasy that wants to seem real: No one has quoted Hegel or referenced a hip rock band. There is a bar in the town, and people go there to drink.


'Men in Trees'

Where: ABC

When: 10 to 11 tonight; moves to regular time of 9-10 p.m. Fridays

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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